A Case for the Christian Intellectual

Perhaps I’m sensitive to it because I have worked in academia for over a decade, but at times I feel a profound discomfort about the response of some in the modern Christian church toward “intellectuals” or toward anyone who values “book learning” or education.

Frequently, I hear the word “intellectual” used as a synonym for “secular” or “politically liberal” in the same way that colleges are portrayed as synonymous with indoctrination and progressive politics.  Referring to someone as intellectual or as a scholar is frequently used to dismiss particular arguments and thinkers as being all “head” and no heart, to set up book learning as an opposition to godly wisdom.

As a result, in some circles the concept of the intellectual is being (or perhaps has been) constructed as someone in opposition to faith, to the church, to Christianity, and to godly learning.  As someone dangerous.  As someone whose words should automatically be discounted or dismissed.

I fear that view becoming common.  And I fear it not just because it is inaccurate, but because Christian intellectuals and scholars have a vital role to play in the church.

Let’s dispense with the fiction that being educated or being an intellectual indicates any sort of secular bent or ungodliness.  This whole view forgets the Christian church was actually a seat of learning in a time long past.  Christian scholarship has produced an inordinate amount of work of great value.  Much of import was written, copied, and preserved in monasteries and abbeys.  Great Christian thinkers and writers have made advances in all sorts of fields.

And while it’s true that reason, analysis, and intelligence are not to be conflated with godly wisdom or the wisdom that the Holy Spirit imparts, neither is it true that they stand in opposition to each other.  A person can be both profoundly learned and a devoted believer; one does not cancel out the other.  As for the argument that “indoctrination” and exposure to secular learning can tempt or sway Christians from the faith, my response is now – and has always been – that yes, I am sure it can happen.  Believers can be tempted away from the faith by all manner of things, I suppose.  But that is a faith issue at the core, not one that we can simply blame on reading too many books.  To decide that “learning = secularism” is a wide leap to make from such a premise.

It’s important to me that we recognize this, because the Christian intellectual has a profound role to play in the church.

Scholars can help illuminate the Word of God in wondrous news ways.  They can guide us to deeper and clearer understandings, or help us see a familiar Scripture in a bright new light.  They minister with their work: consider the linguists and language scholars who labor over translations to bring the Word of God to everyone in their own languages.  Consider those who make new discoveries to the glory of God, who research cures for diseases or share poetry and literature that moves the heart.

Maybe just as importantly, scholars carry with them a set of tools vital to God’s people.  They are taught to think clearly, to analyze, to call out dishonesty and obfuscation and falsehood.  To be a scholar and a Christian is to insist on the truth, to resist others whose dissembling would hide it, to ask and answer difficult questions.  We work out thorny issues of interpretation, we strive for clarity in our speech and our words, we strive to hold others accountable.  We notice inconsistencies, incoherences, contradictions, and examine them.  This matters to church life.

One need not be an intellectual to be a Christian, of course.  God’s love and grace, praise Him, do not depend on one’s intellectual ability.  But one can be an intellectual and a devoted believer in Christ, and if we dismiss that we lose something of value within the church.  God gave us all a varied set of skills and abilities: it’s important that we use them all , excluding none, for His glory.

 

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4 thoughts on “A Case for the Christian Intellectual

  1. Amen! I too have encountered similar – that the scholarly (or just the desire to study deeper things of the faith) is… a waste of time, leads one away from God, etc.

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  2. It’s bad enough when non-Christians say that one cannot be both intellectual and Christian. When Christians say it, it’s even worse. I speak as a person with a Master’s degree, once who has taught college students, and one who is a conservative Christian. Thank you for writing this. J.

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